Category Archives: History

Foreign Shipwrecks in the Faroe Islands

Many ships have wrecked in the treacherous waters around the Faroe Islands. The stories and relics of these tragedies are scattered throughout the islands, their memory seen in places ranging from folk songs to the church silver of Viðareiði, and even in the ancestry of many Faroese people living today.

The following is a small sampling of notable foreign shipwrecks in the Faroe Islands:

A map showing the years, names, and locations of foreign shipwrecks in the Faroe Islands.

Notable foreign shipwrecks in the Faroe Islands.

The bell in Tórshavn Cathedral was taken from the wreck of the Norske Løve.

The bell in Tórshavn Cathedral was taken from the wreck of the Norske Løve.

In 1707, the Danish ship Norske Løve was traveling from Copenhagen to the West Indies when it ran into trouble. The big, 36-cannon ship was hit first by lightning, then by a breaker, and finally sank in Lambavík on New Year’s Eve. Approximately 100 men survived, but the ship was buried by a landslide in the night and lies now under both water and earth. The ship’s bell was recovered and is the main bell in Tórshavn Cathedral to this day, and a chair can be seen in the Blásastova museum in the village of Gøta. One of the votive ships in Tórshavn Cathedral is a model of the Norske Løve, said to have been made by one of the sailors rescued from the wreck. There is also a Faroese ring-dance song about the sinking of the Norske Løve.

Crashed and abandoned foreign vessels have often proved beneficial for the Faroese people, as useful goods and building materials would wash ashore. For example, the village of Mykines received goods from the shipwreck of the Dutch ship Walrechen in 1667 and an abandoned lumber boat in 1819, and when an abandoned Norwegian boat carrying a large quantity of timber drifted to shore in Árnafjørður in 1875, the local cost of wood fell dramatically.

In 1742, the Dutch ship Westerbeek shipwrecked on the west coast of Suðuroy, in a place called Lopranseiði. Travelling far off course in a dense fog on their way home with spices from Ceylon, the Westerbeek was caught and wrecked between a steep cliff and a line of skerries. Ten of the crew, who were sick and lying in bed at the time, went down with the ship, and another man died while trying to escape. But the other 80 men on board managed to reach safety by climbing the steep cliff and the broken mast of the ship. Faroese people from Vágur helped rescue them, and most of the men ended up spending the winter in the Faroe Islands.

The Westerbeek is one of the most famous shipwrecks to have happened in the Faroes. There is a Faroese book about the incident, and also a ring-dance song, Visen om Westerbeek. There are many stories about men from the ship who settled in the islands and left descendents. However, one of the only verified stories is that of Berent Schouten, the ship’s carpenter, who had a daughter with a girl from Vágar. Many Faroese people descend from Sunneva Barentsdatter.

The village of Viðareiði, where the British ship Marwood stranded.

The village of Viðareiði, where the British ship Marwood stranded.

In 1847, the British ship Marwood was on its way from Africa to Liverpool when it lost its rudder in a winter storm. After drifting for three weeks, the ship was stranded near Viðareiði. The people of the village helped to rescue and care for the crew, and the British government later thanked them with a gift of fine silver, which can be found in the church of Viðareiði today.

In 1895, the British ship Principia was traveling from Dundee to the United States when it caught fire in bad weather. The crew attempted to turn back towards Scotland, but the ship crashed in Søltuvík off the island of Sandoy. Only one man survived, lying on a wooden hatch for 14 hours until he was rescued in the village of Kirkjubøur. The hatch he clung to is now used as a table in Kirkjubøur’s Stokkastovan, the oldest house in the Faroe Islands.

In 1918, the Danish ship Casper was bringing a cargo of salt from Ibiza to the Faroes when it was driven onto the cliffs of Lítla Dímun, the only uninhabited island in the archipelago. The six members of the crew, including the badly injured captain, managed to reach first a narrow ledge just above the surf, and then a cabin partway up the island. They found matches, fuel, and a lamp, caught two sheep and a sick bird, and survived there for 17 days before they were discovered and rescued. One of the sailors settled in the Faroe Islands permanantly.

In 1941, two British ships sank in the Faroe Islands. The first was the Lincoln City, an anti-submarine warfare trawler in the British Royal Navy. It was bombed in an air raid and sank outside of Tórshavn, killing all eight men on board.

The cliffs of Svínoy in Fugloyarfjørður, where the Jólaskipið met its end.

The cliffs of Svínoy in Fugloyarfjørður, where Jólaskipið met its end.

The story of the SS Sauternes is one of the saddest in this list. The steamship was coming into the Faroe Islands laden with supplies including fuel, Danish currency minted in the UK for use on the islands, and Christmas presents. The locals called it Jólaskipið, the Christmas Ship, and were eagerly awaiting its coming.

The Sauternes was not made for the conditions of the North Atlantic, but in wartime, compromises must sometimes be made. A storm was rising as the boat reached the Faroe Islands, and the ship could not reach Tórshavn. The crew telegraphed their position to the Naval Headquarters in the capital. At that time, they were in Fugloyarfjørður, the narrow stretch of water separating the small islands of Fugloy and Svínoy in the northeast. However, the Naval Headquarters believed that the ship was in the similarly named Fuglafjørður, which is a safe haven protected from the open sea, so they ordered the Sauternes to drop anchor.

The storm intensified, and the Sauternes sank as locals looked on helplessly from shore. All 25 passengers and crew were lost, and only 6 bodies were ever recovered; these were buried in Klaksvík. The Faroese have never forgotten the Jólaskipið, and there is a book about the tragic event. The wreck occurred the same day as Pearl Harbor, another tragedy on another archipelago on the other side of the world.

In 1957, the Icelandic trawler Goðanes crashed into a reef as it entered Skálafjørð on Eysturoy. The Faroe Islanders wanted to rescue the crew, but they didn’t have the necessary equipment, and the captain died in the accident. Afterwards, Slýsavarnafelag Íslands, the rescue association of Iceland, donated rescue equipment to the Faroe Islands, inspiring the establishment of rescue organizations around the islands. A formal rescue service was established in 1976.

In 2007, the Russian trawler Olshana ran aground at a reef called Flesjarnar on its way out from Kollafjørður. “Flesjarnar” is a dangerous reef lying in the waters between Streymoy and Eysturoy, and it has sunk many boats throughout history. Olshana’s entire crew was rescued, but the trawler sank immediately when it was pulled off the reef the next day. Several ships now rest at the bottom of the sea in that area, many carrying significant amounts of oil.

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Parrot Time – Faroese Edition

Norðragøta on the cover of Parrot Time's special Faroe Islands issue.

Norðragøta on the cover of Parrot Time’s special Faroe Islands issue.

This month, my love for the Faroe Islands had an exciting new platform — a special issue of a magazine!

Parrot Time is a linguistic and cultural emagazine published bimonthly by the Parleremo language learning community. The magazine’s editor-in-chief, Erik Zidowecki, contacted me based on our conversations about the Faroe Islands to ask whether I would be interested in helping him put together a special issue focusing on Faroese topics. Naturally, I was very excited to work on the project. With the help of four Faroe Islanders, we published eleven articles on subjects ranging from summer festivals on the islands and the new feature film Ludo to the presence of Danish in Faroese life and the Faroese perspective on the whaling controversy. I’m very happy with the way the magazine came together with such a wide variety of pieces and beautiful photographs.

From my article "Coming Home to Faroese" in Parrot Time's special Faroe Islands issue.

From my article “Coming Home to Faroese” in Parrot Time’s special Faroe Islands issue.

Coming Home to Faroese” was my main feature story for the magazine. By exploring the richness that learning Faroese has brought to my life, I wrote about the challenges and rewards of learning a language with a small number of speakers. Here’s an excerpt:

“I remember how it felt to speak Faroese down in Copenhagen, to navigate through the crowded city and yet feel as if I had never left the islands when I heard the language I had learned to love so well. The Danes and other foreigners that passed were none the wiser that something didn’t add up, that I was an imposter, that I didn’t belong. In a way I did. In that moment, I felt I could just glimpse, just taste, that feeling of being a part of something… smaller. Something more intimate. Of what it meant to know just from a language that you were home.”

The readable PDF version of the magazine can be viewed for free at the following address: http://issuu.com/abavagada/docs/parrottime_issue_011/3?e=6771516/9612833

From Island to Island

Not content with visiting 16 islands and an islet in the Faroes, I planned a long way home, postponing my return to the mainland by two weeks and stops on the islands of Amager and Zealand (Denmark), Great Britain (England and Wales), The Isle of Man, and Ireland. Just as I had done on my way in through Norway, I kept my eyes and ears open for traces of the Faroe Islands in its neighboring countries.

First Stop: Denmark

Copenhagen Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and Faroe Islanders often joke that Copenhagen is the largest Faroese city, since the population of ethnic Faroese there is higher than that of Tórshavn. Logically, then, I expected it to be easy to find the Faroese here. And it was… and wasn’t.

First, I tried to find some Faroese people. This task was much harder than I’d anticipated, because so many of the Faroese residents of Copenhagen were on summer holiday at the time — in fact, most of them were visiting their family back home on the islands!

Still, I found myself joined by a whole Atlantic Airways flight of islanders going the other way — and I even knew many of them personally. And so I had the surreal experience of traveling, for however short a time, with Faroese people and speaking with them in Faroese while the Danes carried on around us, not understanding more than a word here or there. It was an oddly cozy feeling.

Through the wonders of the internet and multi-degree connectivity, I’d also managed to track down two Faroese women currently residing in the city – Heidi and Krista. Heidi invited me to temunn and breakfast at her home, and gave me insight into how she has carried her Faroese identity while living and, to a large degree, assimilating into Danish society. Krista and I spent two fun evenings together while we chatted about her own life and plans. Krista has been in Copenhagen for a far shorter time than Heidi, spends most of her time with the Faroese people living there, and plans to return to the Faroe Islands as soon after getting more work experience in Denmark.

It was also fashion week, and among the other big names being interviewed live and broadcast on a big screen in the city center, I saw a name and a face that was by this time familiar: Barbara í Gongini, a famous Faroese designer.

Aside from the Faroese themselves, there was little in Copenhagen to remind me of the Faroe Islands. The land was flat, the buildings tall, the streets busy, the sky startlingly big and blue after spending time in the misty Faroese mountains. Oh, and it was hot. I broke out pieces of my wardrobe that hadn’t seen the light of day since I’d packed them optimistically into my suitcase in May.

Faroese House Copenhagen

The Faroese House in Copenhagen

I made a map of Faroese places and things I might be able to see in the city. There was The Faroese House, a cultural meeting place and cafe; it was closed for the summer holidays. The “Faroese student ghetto” of Øresundskollegiet was likewise empty for the season. I found nothing Faroese in the Danish National Museum, which returned most such artifacts to the National Museum of the Faroe Islands several years ago. A search for Faroese restaurants, or even a restaurant serving Faroese ingredients, revealed only that Tórshavn’s beloved sushi restaurant, Etika, had tried in 2010 to establish a Copenhagen branch; despite some good initial reviews, it had not even lasted a season.

I took a walking tour of Copenhagen, which started outside the City Hall. Our guide proudly told us that the polar bears on the hall’s roof were there to represent Greenland, a Danish territory. As we started walking, I asked her to please point out to me if we passed anything related to the Faroe Islands.

She answered shortly: “No. There’s nothing about the Faroe Islands.”

“Okay,” I began, “Thanks anyw — ”

“In fact,” she continued, “I don’t really know anything about the Faroe Islands. At all.”

Most of the Danes I met were not so abrupt. Still, if my summer plans came up, most didn’t comment at all. Some said it was interesting in a tone that told me they thought it was anything but. There were exceptions. I met another journalist who had been living in Greenland, and we were eager to hear about each other’s work. And one young woman excitedly asked me if I was Faroese — she had spent time in the Faroe Islands, and recognized my sweater.

On the whole, the Danes just didn’t show anywhere near the interest that the Norwegians had back in Bergen, which I found a little bit strange considering the relationship between the two nations.

Second Stop: Great Britain

Cotswolds Islands

I was one degree and ten minutes away from a Faroese man in Oxford. They get around, I’m finding. I met a Cuban man in my hostel, and when he heard why I was in Europe, he threw up his hands in astonishment. “Seriously?” he asked, “I just found out about that place ten minutes ago! I was talking to this awesome Faroese guy at my conference. This is too weird.”

The British occupied the Faroe Islands during World War II and left behind an airport, a strong tea-drinking tradition and Cadbury chocolate. But the cultural exchange was mostly unilateral, and the rest of my connections to the Faroe Islands on Great Britain were comparative. The apologies the locals made for the changeable weather made me smile that one-upping smile. The sea felt so warm. The houses and gardens looked so fine and pretty, even in the small villages of the Cotswalds and the mountains of Wales. The land just seemed so safe, protected, and fertile compared to what I had come from.

A language geek as ever, Welsh fascinated me. I saw more of it than I expected to — just about everything written was bilingual — but I didn’t hear any of it until I reached northern Wales, where I was happy to hear it spoken much more, and by all generations, in Caernarfon. The scarcity still made me a little bit sad. There, I thought, but for the grace of a thousand kilometers of salt water, or some truly commendable island obstinacy, goes Faroese.

Third Stop: The Isle of Man

Isle of Man Faroe Islands

I stayed with a family in the Isle of Man who positively astonished me with their knowledge of the Faroes. They asked me intelligent questions about the political system, showed me an old book with photographs of artist Tróndur Patursson harpooning a whale, and expressed avid concern for the puffin colonies on Mykines.

Now, this family was most likely exceptional in this regard: not only especially intellectually curious but specifically about topics that would pull the Faroe Islands into their view. The two island nations are, after all, linked by many obvious political and cultural parallels, varying degrees of Norse heritage, and, especially intriguing to my host’s father (a part-time ornithologist) large populations of sea birds.

The Isle of Man is much bigger than any of the Faroe Islands, and it’s only the one. It was hard for me to buy, comparatively, the word “isolated” describing any of the Manx settlements. The people of Man have a few towns that could reasonably be called cities, albeit small ones, with multiple pubs and Chinese and Indian carry-outs… and lovely, brooding castles. They’ve also got much larger expanses of flat, fertile land as well as trees and forests. Despite some resistance, English has almost completely overtaken their Manx language.

But when I stood on the shore, the strength of the wind took me by surprise and the crashing surf revealed the fury of the full force of the Atlantic, even on a mild and sunny day. And I thought, yes, these islands are close cousins, after all.

Fourth Stop: Ireland

Ireland Faroe Islands

Once I read a long scholarly article that promised to examine the historic cultural relationship between Ireland and the Faroe Islands. It basically concluded there wasn’t any… and wasn’t that strange? Okay. So I didn’t spend much time looking in that direction.

Irish Gaelic, which seems to be doing okay, gave me yet another reminder of how amazing Faroese is doing for such a small language. For my next visit to Ireland, I think I better head to the Aran Islands, which I was able to glimpse not too far off the coast of the Burren. They’re as Gaelic as Gaelic comes, everyone says — that little bit of saltwater separation having a powerful preservative effect.

The Irish landscape was broader and flatter and more forested than the Faroese, once again (it doesn’t take much.) To give credit where it’s due, I experienced more changeable weather in Ireland than anywhere else I’ve ever visited, including the Faroes. So many of these Northern European countries tell the same jokes — “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” But only in Ireland did I really experience, within the hour, sunshine turn to black skies and driving rain and back again.

The Cliffs of Moher, apparently Ireland’s second most visited tourist attraction, were lovely. But I’d seen just as good in the Faroes and not had to share them with hundreds of Chinese and Midwestern American tourists. And the Irish are going around claiming they have the highest sea cliffs in Europe. You can Google it and see.

“As high as the Cliffs of Moher (217m) are,” our guide said proudly, “they are not the highest in Ireland! For that, you’ll have to go to Sliabh Liag (601m), which are the highest sea cliffs in all of Europe!”

Now, I happen to know that the Faroese Cape Enniberg, which also claims that lofty title (they discount Norway’s Hornelen for not being vertical enough for proper cliffs) rises 750 meters above the sea. When I questioned the guide on the matter while the rest of the bus was going to the bathroom, he sort of deflated.

“Maybe my facts are wrong,” I offered. “I’m not very good at remembering numbers.”

“No, no, you’re probably right,” he said. “This is just what we learned in school…”

I doubt he’ll change his rehearsed speech on the matter. After all, how often is someone going to know enough about some little nowhere islands to call him on it?

The Sea Shepherd Grindstop 2014 Invasion

Faroese social media is exploding with commentary about Sea Shepherd's Grindstop 2014 anti-whaling campaign.

Faroese social media is exploding with commentary about Sea Shepherd’s Grindstop 2014 anti-whaling campaign.

The Faroe Islands is being invaded this summer by The Sea Shepherd Conversation Society, which is coming with more than 500 volunteers in an attempt to stop the Grindadráp, or Faroese whale hunt, by “monitoring the 23 grind bays, deterring the dolphins from shore, and taking direct action to intervene against a grind if necessary.” Operation Grindstop 2014 will be the largest land- and sea-based campaign in the organization’s history.

The Grindadráp and Sea Shepherd are both controversial in their own way.

The Grindadráp / Faroese Killing of Pilot Whales

Photo: FaroeIslandsPhoto.com / Kasper Solberg

Photo: FaroeIslandsPhoto.com / Kasper Solberg

The Faroese have hunted pilot whales for hundreds of years, and their meat and blubber formed an invaluable part of their diet in the past, when food was scarce in this remote part of the world. Even today, whale meat and blubber is the Faroese national dish, and the hunt is considered one of the cornerstones of Faroese culture. The main threat to the consumption of pilot whale, as the Faroese see it, are the health effects of the high mercury content in whale meat today.

The pilot whale is not listed as an endangered species (as some anti-whaling activists claim) and the hunt is not considered to be a threat by organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the American Cetacean Society, and the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission to pose a threat to the species. The IUCN’s Red List listing of the pilot whale says that “the Faroese catch is probably sustainable.”

While some argue that the tradition is outdated and unnecessarily cruel, especially since it involves the killing of such intelligent or otherwise special animals, many Faroese argue that killing whales for food in the grindadráp is as humane, if not more so, than the slaughter of factory-raised animals, which merely has the public relations advantage of taking place behind closed doors so the blood doesn’t disturb the grocery-shopping, meat-eating public.

For more on the grindadráp controversy, please feel free to read Faroe Islander Elin Brimheim Heinesen’s blog post, Why Most Arguments Against Grindadráp Fail, the official Faroese whaling website, this PBS documentary or information directly from highly regarded conservationist groups.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Image: seashepherd.org

Image: seashepherd.org

Sea Shepherd is an environmental activist group whose founder, Paul Watson, split off from Greenpeace due to his confrontational tactics. Many people around the world see Sea Shepherd’s members and volunteers as heroes protecting the whales, and they have a large media presence including, in the past, a reality TV show called Whale Wars. Others, however, decry the organization’s disregard for facts and their vigilante actions (they have been called eco-terrorists and faced charges for assault and sabotage, among others).

For more on the Sea Shepherd controversy, you can find many news articles about Paul Watson and the organization, such as this one from The Telegraph.

Grindstop 2014: The Beginning

The Sea Shepherd Grindstop volunteers started arriving in the Faroes last week, provoking a wide range of reactions from Faroe Islanders. Many wish the protestors would not be allowed into the country. Others say that it is important to treat them with respect as visitors, and that, on the bright side, they will be forced to spend money in the islands. There is also a small group of Faroe Islanders who are themselves against the grindadráp, despite the inherent difficulty of going against the established culture in a small community. A Facebook group called “Faroe Islanders against the Grind” counts 104 members.

Faroe Islanders Against the Grind

Faroe Islanders Against the Grind

In comparison, another Facebook group was created about three hours ago to call for banning Sea Shepherd from the Faroe Islands. The group currently has 712 members.

Ban Sea Shepherd

Ban Sea Shepherd

Whatever the attitude, the presence of such a large group is bound to have an impact on the islands this summer. With fewer than 50,000 people living in the Faroe Islands, 500 protestors can be considered the equivalent of 3 million foreign Muslims, Jews and vegetarians invading the United States to demand that Americans stop slaughtering pigs and consuming pork products.

#GrindStop2014, #HotdogStop2015, anyone?

In the first week, not much of note has happened on either side. The Faroese are waging their own anti-SS social media campaign, sharing such critical news stories as photographic evidence of Sea Shepherd volunteers stealing food from a ferry buffet or mocking Sea Shepherd operatives for calling the police when a group of rowdy Faroese came towards one of their boats calling them names one night in the capital.

One satirical Faroese website even went to far as to announce a fake grindadráp, which it said would be held at Vatnsoyrar — the only village that is not on the coastline, but rather on the shores of the largest Faroese lake! The explanation was that in order to avoid Sea Shepherd, they would shoot the whales through a waterfall. I don’t know whether any Sea Shepherd people showed up in Vatnsoyrar, but I did find the link posted to their Grindstop Facebook page by concerned readers.

Fake Grindadráp in Vatnsoyrar

Fake Grindadráp in Vatnsoyrar

Faroese people have also taken to defending themselves and asking questions back at the activists through social media. Oddur Á Lakjuni wrote, “I’m wondering here: The Faroese kill more sheep than they do whales… But there’s not a word of criticism from anywhere. Both are killed for food – although neither is absolutely necessary for survival (and to be honest: which item of food is, when you take it in isolation?)”

The volunteers have been scouting out beaches and appear to be rather bored, if social media updates consisting almost exclusively of volunteers looking out onto the empty sea and videos such as this one are anything to go by:

Mimmy Vágsheyg, a Faroese woman who opened a new cafe in Klaksvík this year, says that anti-whaling advocates have been harassing her online for months, sending her messages filled with graphic images and leaving phony bad reviews on her business listings. Vágsheyg does not serve whale meat at her cafe, but thinks that the group must be indiscriminately targeting Faroese businesses. “I’m just getting started here, I don’t need this!” she said.

Since Sea Shepherd started arriving en masse last week, Vágsheyg says they have come into her cafe to repeatedly check her menus for incriminating items. “I don’t understand why they come every day. Do they think I am hiding the whale?”

Cultural Background: The Faroese Language

My first taste of anything Faroese was the language itself, when a friend sent me Týr’s Ormurin Langi, a heavy-metal recording of an old Faroese ballad, almost a decade ago. Later, I would come to know the landscapes, the culture, and the people as well, but part of me fell in love with just the words themselves.

In a way, that’s very fitting. Language is a hugely important part of cultural and national identity. You’ll find it at the heart of many a nationalistic movement. The Faroese language and its use played an important role in the movement towards Faroese autonomy, and continues to be a factor in negotiating distance from Denmark and concepts of what the Faroe Islands should be today.

The Faroese language is very important to most Faroese, for whom it is their mother tongue, inextricably tied to the culture and proof of their need for independent recognition. In “Cultural Rhapsody in Shift,” Faroese Anthropologist Firouz Gaini writes that “the language, first and foremost as a semantic system and an oral tradition, has dominated the scene and been widely recognized as the jewel of the Faroese culture.”

Until the mid-20th century, Danish was used in official matters, education, literature, and religious institutions. Even today, because of the size of the community, a huge variety of imported products and media are not translated into Faroese. The Faroese TV station, when it runs out of Faroese material, switches to whatever it can get from Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and American programming, generally subtitling in Danish if at all. The cell phones are Danish, and if you want to text in Faroese you’ll have to turn off the auto-correct and switch over to the Icelandic keyboard every time you need the letter ð (edh). Despite the huge push to translate all sorts of things from all parts of life, children still have to use many Danish textbooks and sometimes even take their exams in Danish. At a minimum, the Faroese are bilingual with Faroese and a local variety of Danish called Gøtudanskt, but many also speak good Danish, are trilingual with English, and even multilingual with other foreign languages on top of that.

Comic about Faroese and Danish

One could spend twenty minutes just explaining the history of Faroese in conjunction with the other Scandinavian languages, but, in an attempt to make things brief, Faroese is descended from Old Norse, just like Icelandic and Norwegian. Danish and Swedish developed in a rather different direction, but Danish then had a huge effect on Faroese and especially Norwegian when they were under Danish rule. The result is that Faroese and Norwegian can be considered the most central of all Scandinavian languages, with Faroese retaining more grammatical complexity and similarity to Icelandic and Old Norse. The Faroese are in fact the best in the region at understanding all of the others.

Faroese is a highly inflected, highly irregular language with an inconsistently phonetic writing system.

When I say Faroese is highly inflected, I mean that they love “bending” words – or conjugating their verbs and declining their nouns. Verbs take different forms depending on who does them and when, and nouns are even worse. There are three different noun “cases” – Nominative, Accusative, and Dative, depending on whether the noun is acting as the subject, object, or direct object or according to its place within a certain idiomatic expression. Nouns come in three genders, and within each gender there are several possibilities for how the words within that gender can be bent. Then, of course, you also have to think about definite vs. indefinite nouns, because the definite marker goes at the end of the word and affects the bending. If you’re keeping track, that means each noun has 12 forms – not counting four genitive ones which are now rarely used.

Emergency Exit Row instructions in Faroese on at Atlantic Airways flight.

Emergency Exit Row instructions in Faroese on at Atlantic Airways flight.

When I say Faroese is irregular, I mean that, despite all of these rules, you’ll find almost as many words that vary from the rules in at least some small way as you will words that follow them exactly. You’ll also find alternative ways to say all sorts of things – head, for example, can be høvur or høvd, or even heysur or knokkur.

Faroese also has some rare and strange vowel sounds, much as English does. This has been really hard for me to get used to, even though it’s not that different from my native language, simply because I’ve gotten so used to purer, simpler sounds in every other language I’ve learned. So you have to get used to that sort of irregularity.

The Faroese writing system is one of the biggest headaches for both native and foreign learners. I’m constantly asked here if I can also write Faroese. It would be very easy for someone learning the language by ear here to be completely illiterate. The relationship between the letters and the sounds is quite irregular, like in English or French, and takes a lot of getting used to. The reason for this is that when the written language was developed, and quite late at that (1854), the primary goal was not phonetic fidelity but rather etymological clarity. The written language is so clear about its roots that I can basically read Icelandic and Old Norse now, even though the spoken language has diverged greatly since that time. A secondary advantage of this writing system is that it avoided privileging any specific Faroese dialect (yes, that’s right – in a nation of less than 50,000 people, there are several dialects). That latter is what I’ve been told, anyway. From where I’m standing, it seems to me that that’s true only because the written language is so out of touch that it works equally poorly, and thus equally well, with every spoken dialect.

To give just one – although admittedly particularly egregious – example of the spelling nonsense, consider the letter ð (edh). Students of linguistic notation, Old English, or Icelandic will think they know this friendly character. It normally makes a voiced th sound (like in “then” or “there.”) Not in Faroese, though. In Faroese, it means whatever it feels like. Usually that’s some sort of semi-vocalic glide, like a W, V, or Y. But sometimes it’s a G. In exactly one word, it’s a D. I only wish I were joking.

"Gjógv" is the name for this village and the Faroese word for Gorge. Think it's pronounced Jogv or Gyoegv? Think again. It's more like Jeggv!

“Gjógv” is the name for this village and the Faroese word for Gorge. Think it’s pronounced Jogv or Gyoegv? Think again. It’s more like Jeggv!

All of this makes Faroese quite a bit harder than the average Indo-European language to learn. But I also find it also incredibly rewarding because it has such a tight and fascinating connection with the culture here. It’s lovely to see how much people value and take an interest in their own language — that enthusiasm makes the learning process, even if slow and slightly painful at times, an adventure I’m happy to embark on.

My Life in Norðragøta

The stream going past my house in Norðagøta...

The stream going past my house in Norðragøta.

I have now been in the Faroe Islands for just over a week. It feels like much longer (in the best possible way). Though I am just getting started with my journalism work and research, it’s been a very busy week as I’ve adapted to my new lifestyle.

My situation could not be any better. I am staying with an incredibly friendly family who include me in all of their activities and love helping me to learn the Faroese language and the culture. A lot of my time this week has been spent doing things with them, from making a late mother’s day breakfast to going to the extended family knitting club. I have been settling in to the routines of the house, and just like anyone else, I wash dishes, cook meals and take out the dog, Lolli. Even during the day, when most of the others are working, I am never lonely. Eight people live in this house, and other relatives and friends drop by regularly as well, coming and going at all hours.

My room here in Norðagøta

My bedroom and puppy for the summer!

My village, Norðragøta, is a beautiful and very old village with a central location on the main bus route and road between the two biggest Faroese towns, Tórshavn and Klaksvík. Though I ended up here by chance, I couldn’t have picked a better place to live.

A Faroese Stamp featuring Húsini hjá Peri, the old part of Norðragøta with its lovely turf roofs.

A Faroese Stamp featuring Húsini hjá Peri, the old part of Norðragøta with its lovely turf roofs.

Norðragøta has a population of 550, and the larger “Gøta” area, which comprises Norðragøta as well as Gøtueiði, Gøtugjógv and Syðrugøta, is home to just over 1,000. By Faroese terms, that’s right in the middle — not a booming metropolis like the capital (population 12,500), nor one of the many tiny, remote villages. I can walk to a small grocery store, a gas station, a soccer stadium, a fairly large and modern church and several other commodities, but the village still has a friendly and relaxed bucolic feeling.

Horses and mountains from my window in Norðagøta.

Horses and mountains from my window in Norðragøta.

Wherever you are, you can hear the crying of the gulls and the bleating of the sheep. From my window, I can almost always see children playing in the stream, dogs walking around freely on the roads and even a few horses, who are allowed to graze in alternating yards and fields and confined only by portable rope fences that are moved every few days.

The Faroe Islands in Vertical: Here you can quickly see the difference between the Bøur, or infield, and the Hagi, or outfield, where sheep are kept in different seasons.

The Faroe Islands in Vertical: Here you can quickly see the difference between the Bøur, or infield, and the Hagi, or outfield, where sheep are kept in different seasons.

Norðragøta is quite a typical Faroese village situated, like everything in the Faroes, on narrow bits of almost-flat land between the mountains and the sea. Things are arranged almost vertically here — the sea; the beach and the harbour; the fish factory; the houses and businesses; the infield; the outfield; the cliffs; the mountain-top fog; the sky — are all stacked like layers of coloured sand in a jar.

Gøta also has a few special distinctions. It is the home of Eivør Pálsdóttir, one of the most famous Faroese singers, and the annual G! Music Festival. Gøtuvík is one of the largest bays in the Faroes, and the Stóragjógv cleft that empties into it is the largest such canyon on the islands.

Traditional Faroese church in Norðagøta

Traditional Faroese church in Norðragøta, complete with turf roof.

Gøta also features prominently in the Faroe Islander’s Saga, or Færeyingasaga, as one of the main characters, the heathen Viking chief, Tróndur í Gøtu, had his farm right here! In the oldest part of Norðragøta, there are several turf-roofed houses, a 200-year-old traditional Faroese church, and a living-history museum at the old house Blásastova, where my host family’s ancestors lived.  This is one of the best places in the islands for visitors to experience what Faroese village life was like not so long ago.

Norðragøta already feels like home to me. I’m very excited to spend the summer here!

Through Bergen, with Love

Bergen as seen from the top of Mt. Fløyen.

Bergen as seen from the top of Mt. Fløyen.

En route to the Faroe Islands, I spent several days in the Norwegian coastal city of Bergen. One does not simply fly into the Faroe Islands, after all. Although Atlantic Airways (the Faroese national airline) is expanding its services pretty quickly, coming from America you still need to connect in one of a handful of European cities. You’ll have to book the flights separately, and, with flights in and out of the Faroes frequently delayed (sometimes for days) its good to have some buffer time in between. That gave me the perfect opportunity for a short stay in Bergen, where I studied abroad in 2012. The plan was perfect — I could stay with friends and even attend the 200th Jubilee celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day, or Syttende Mai.

Bergen's historic wooden wharf (Bryggen), the tallship Statsraad Lehmkuhl and a Ferris Wheel for the Bicentennial celebrations.

From right to left: The famous tall-ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl, a Ferris Wheel for the Bicentennial celebrations, the Haakonshalle and Rosenkrantz Torn medieval buildings, and Bergen’s historic wooden wharf (Bryggen).

Aside from convenience and pleasure, there was also something romantic about the idea of entering the Faroe Islands through Bergen. Norway, and especially Bergen, have long had a tight connection to the islands, which they controlled during Viking and Hanseatic times. When the Danes took over Norway, they took the Faroes as well — and kept them when Norway was handed over first to the Swedes and then, finally, to the Norwegians themselves. Copenhagen long ago replaced Bergen as the “capital across the water” where Faroese goods were traded and religious and political authorities reported. But Norway and the Faroe Islands continue to resemble and remember each other in many ways.

Unlike in the rest of the world — and even in the rest of Europe — the Faroes are well known in Norway. Some Norwegians have even been there. The blank stares mentions of the Faroes elicited for me in the United States were replaced with a wide variety of reactions —  “Wow, you’ll love it!” “How intriguing.” “What a crazy place…” “I had a Faroese friend once.” “I love Faroese music.” “I’m applying for a job there.” “I’ve always wanted to go there!” “Their language is so strange, it’s like you can almost understand it, but not quite…”

High above the sea on Damsgårdsfjell!

Rising high over the sea on Damsgårdsfjell!

Hiking on Mt. Ulriken, high above the city.

Hiking on Mt. Ulriken, high above the city.

In many ways, Bergen was a good halfway point between where I was coming from and where I was going. A good place to acclimatise. The mountains and the sea, the rain and cool summer weather, the wool sweaters and smell of fish — these I would find in the Faroes as well. The size of the bustling city, the birch and oak and pine — these I would still have to leave behind. Norwegian was harder on my brain and tongue than my native English, but much easier and more familiar than the more-inflected and less-phonetic Faroese.

Fishing and picnicking on Mt. Sandviken.

Fishing and picnicking on Mt. Sandviken.

I drank deeply of the pure mountain water I had missed so much. I walked so far that blisters broke through my tender flatland feet. I saw friends I had missed for many months, meeting them in bars and cafes, by lakes up on the fells, in cozy homes where the familiar smell of wet wood and the warmth of heated floors nearly brought me to nostalgic tears.

Syttende Mai 1

The Syttende Mai Parade

Syttende Mai was a day to remember. We gathered for the traditional holiday breakfast, with puddings and fenelår sausage and champagne, and walked down to the city along with thousands of Norwegians who had gathered in their Sunday best or beautiful Bunads, the Norwegian national dress that varies spectacularly and colorfully from region to region.

Spectators at the Syttende Mai Parade

Spectators at the Syttende Mai Parade

We wandered blissfully from the parade to a cozy cafe packed tight with the festive air, to the statue of Ivar Aasen to celebrate the linguistic diversity of Norway, to the city’s oldest student bar up on the cliff, down to the wharf for ice cream, back to Årstad, on the other side of the harbor, to grill as the afternoon light shifted into a long, light Nordic evening. And we sang about Norway, in Nynorsk and in Bokmål, sometimes stomping the deck so hard that I was afraid the old boards would break.

After a short break when the French girls sang their anthem and I sang an Ozark ballad (I decided on Matty Groves), my friend Kurt turned to me and sang,

“Vilja tær hoyra kvæði mítt?”

The first words to Ormurin Langi — one of the most famous Faroese kvæði. “Do you want to hear my ballad?”

I answered,

Vilja tær orðum trúgva,
um hann Ólav Trygvason,
hagar skal ríman snúgva.

Glymur dansur í høll,
dans sláið í ring:
Glaðir ríða Noregsmenn
til Hildar ting.

Now that was good fun! Here were cultural roots that ran deeper than the sundering sea. I pulled up the lyrics on my phone so we could all sing along, some tripping over the orthography here and there or interrupting to say, “That’s just like an old word from my region! Like something my grandfather would say!”

In English, the lyrics mean something like this:

Will you believe the words,
About Olav Tryggvasson,
Here’s how the rhyme revolves.

Raucous dance in the Hall,
Dance, form a ring,
Gladly ride Norway’s men,
To Hild’s War Gathering.

Singing Anthems, Ballads, and Kvæði

Singing Anthems, Ballads, and Kvæði

At some point, an exchange student came by to ask Kurt what was going on.

“This is a song that they sing on the Faroe Islands,” he told him. “That’s a little group of islands way out in the sea between here and Iceland. We like the way they sing. And this song is about a Norwegian king; they celebrate him on their national day. This makes us very happy.”